50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Storytelling

The Final Review

We’re at the end, class!

I’m not dying, or anything. But I promised myself at the beginning of this that I wouldn’t push this blog too far. I wouldn’t let it be one of those blogs that posted a lot at once, tapered off into a few posts a year, and died out from age or boredom. (If anyone thinks to look back at the posting dates of each one of my posts, you’ll notice a remarkable consistency.)

Which means there’s a finale to this saga. I read and reviewed the 50 Books to Read Before You Die, according to a bookmark. Just a few final remarks, and that’s all, folks.

I liked most of them. I loved many of them. There were a few I couldn’t stand, and I’m getting rid of those (to leave room on my bookshelf for better books). They all left an impression . . . they all gave me something to think about, something to chew on. Reading each one gave me a world to explore or a new perspective to consider. That’s what books are for.

Several of them gave me clues about how to be a better writer. This list is full to the brim of storytelling techniques, fascinating characters, and hilarious puns. I think all the great storytellers and artists copy from the greats, and this list featured some of the greatest stories of all time—so I’ve got a storytelling repertoire that will continue to inspire before I expire.

I keep coming back to why I chose to do this, and there’s one very obvious answer. I’d just graduated college. I loved college, and more importantly, I loved going to class. I love reading books and then talking about them. We just read this amazing chapter in this book I love, I can’t miss class! The professor’s going to break it apart, show me the little pieces that I missed—then I’ll love it even more!! That’s me. So what’s a man to do after graduation, when there are no more classes, no more professors, no more books and discussions? He starts a blog, of course.

I did this because I’d done nothing but read the assigned reading for the past four years. I wanted to dare myself into reading “literature” on my own. This was my way of making a real life class for myself, a series of self-assigned readings that any professor of a grade-A-geek would be proud of. And I did it for myself—not to show off my limited knowledge to people that know me, but to make myself better as a reader, writer, and storyteller, through the magic of the internet.

But I don’t stoop to think that this almost-three-year task made me a better person. I didn’t expect it would, because a better reader/writer/storyteller is not a better person. (If that sounds like too obvious a statement, I can assure you, that’s something I had to learn, and it’s something several fully grown adults still don’t know.)

It’s like the difference between living and reading about living. Some writers will tell you that the story is all that matters, but that only applies to stories, not to life. Stories serve many purposes—relief, connection, understanding, entertainment, discovery, motivation—but the one thing a story can’t do is replace living. Stories are reflections of life, and so is everything from history to art, from the greatest movie ever to a good joke. The reflections take us where we cannot go, far and wide around the Earth, back in time and forward to the future, and life still waits for us when we return.

No, this didn’t make me a better person. I learned a lot, though. If I use all I learned to not only tell better stories, but live a better life, then I’ll become a better person, I hope. That’s why the blogging is done, at least for now—I’m done with this chapter of my life-book, and if I stick around for too long, I might not get to the rest.

So keep reading. Then go live with what you learned.

Prof. Jeffrey

“[Kurtz] won’t be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witchdance in his honour; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings: he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking. No; I can’t forget him . . . “

—from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

” . . . Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”

—from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Missing From the List: Cloud Atlas

Hello again, class.

I didn’t expect to write about Cloud Atlas because I didn’t think I’d have the chance to read it, while focusing on the books from the 50-books list. But I gave it a shot, and it absolutely belongs here. I know why it didn’t make the list, but I also know that it 100% should have.

Cloud Atlas is a rare book. Author David Mitchell wrote 6 interconnecting stories in a unique and cohesive format—each story is in a different time period with vastly different characters and even different writing styles, but mostly similar themes. The stories never completely converge . . . one story may bleed into the next or reference another in the past or the future, but they are separate stories.

The first story is from the perspective of the attorney Adam Ewing on a Pacific ship in the 1800s, writing his experiences in his journal. The journal stops midway and picks up with an entirely new character, Robert Frobisher, a young composer in the 1930s working with a crippled aging composer as a sort of apprentice. Frobisher writes letters to his distant lover—both his letters and his lover are plot devices in the third story, a 70s mystery novel focusing on the stouthearted journalist Luisa Rey, who attempts to get to the bottom of a corporate conspiracy.

Then, in present day, we focus on a spirited and manipulative publisher, Timothy Cavendish, hilariously finding himself trapped in an elderly care facility by a sadistic nurse. Then we jump forward into the future, where Neo-Seoul is run by something called the Corpocracy; the hero is a clone, Sonmi-451, who begins to understand her own humanity and is kidnapped in her failed revolution, and before her execution she is given a final interview to explain the complicated details of her life. Last but not least, in the far away future after what seems like an apocalyptic event, a fearful and flawed man named Zachry, simply trying to get by in a hard-enough life, struggles to deal with a band of cannibals, a tech-savvy foreigner who he may have feelings for, and a prophecy that threatens to unbalance his life.

Author David Mitchell

But that’s only the first half of the novel—from the final story, the novel begins to work backwards, revisiting the second half of each story in reverse order. Each story has some importance to the overall arc of the novel, but Mitchell makes it clear that they are important individually, too. The ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is comic genius, while the Pacific journal is a Victorian masterpiece, ringing with Moby-Dick vibes. The Luisa Rey mystery is a perfectly cheesy hard-boiled thriller, and the broken language of Zachry’s world after “The Fall” perfectly grasps the sense of long-lost humanity and our tragic downfall as a species. Each story is good, and all combined, the one shared story is even better.

For all their differences, there are things beyond continuity that keep the stories together, and finding those things is kind of like solving a puzzle. Every story seems to have a mention about cannibals, for instance—from the actual cannibals in the far off future to Timothy Cavendish mockingly shouting at his fellow inmates at the elderly home, “Soylent Green is people!” (in reference to the 1970s movie Soylent Green, for the unobservant of you). Overall, the theme of cannibalism—the literal or metaphorical feeding off others—seems to be Mitchell’s commentary on human hunger, the inner animal with an insatiable appetite that threatens humanity’s existence. It’s a small piece of the puzzle, but an important one.

Other themes pop up consistently as well, if you have enough patience to make the connections—it’s got so many layers that I’m sure it welcomes rereading. And the goal seems to be one overall story about a soul, reincarnated again and again throughout time. The reader gets to see the story of the same soul in several different lives, moving across the centuries the same way clouds move above us, changing shape and color but staying still inherently clouds . . . hence the name Cloud Atlas—a mapping out of the life of a soul, moving like the clouds across the sky.

Poster from the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas (2012)

I know why it didn’t make the list—as good as each single story is, they’re still each performing at one-sixths capacity. Mitchell didn’t devote all his time to Ewing’s journal, just a fraction of it, so there’s no way it matches the feat that Moby-Dick achieved, over a hundred years later (blog post pending). The same can be said of his futuristic stories, creative as they are, which still come off as straightforward reflections of other stronger works like Brave New World. Mitchell’s genius may be overpowered by the weight of the story he’s telling, and even though it’s impressive and rare, that’s mostly so because Mitchell is one author rather than six.

But that’s not good enough for me. It should be on the list anyway. The six wildly different stories are still interrelated enough to make something new—something that is distinctly Cloud-Atlas-y, not a collection of cheap duplicates but something made greater in the fusion of powerful stories in their own right. This is an epic—an overarching story of humanity’s past and future, where we follow a soul’s path through time. It’s an amazing, incredible tale that everyone should read.

Still working on Huckleberry Finn, up next time. I don’t know how I’ll feel when I sit down to write about it, but I can tell you I liked Cloud Atlas better. We’ll see how that goes I guess.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling you this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”

—from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Missing From the List: The Shining

Good morning, class.

The 50-books list doesn’t provide a lot in the realm of horror. Sure, there’s Frankenstein and Hamlet, which both at least count, and even my current book The War of the Worlds portrays the horror element of classic sci-fi. But still, I don’t see much that’s horror, first and foremost.

There could be a good reason for that . . . horror is usually low quality; cheap thrills, shallow characters, bad storytelling. But there are exceptions to the genre, and Stephen King proves that with The Shining—so much so that it deserves a place on the list of books you should read before you die.

The story: a small, struggling family watches over the Overlook Hotel through the winter, as supernatural forces try to tear them apart. The father’s alcoholism leaves him vulnerable to the violent spirits in the hotel, and he becomes monstrously abusive. His wife tries to protect their little boy, who just happens to have the ability to communicate with the spirits around them—an ability called shining.

It’s a bad situation . . . and bad becomes worse. They are trapped by the snowstorm in a maze of a building that is crawling with fear, paranoia, rage, and evil. Of course, with Stephen King as the writer, tension smothers every page.

King’s novels are not high literature, in my opinion . . . but this is more compliment than complaint. Of the handful that I’ve read, his novels don’t have that air of pretentiousness found in most English-class pieces of literature. He is an entertainer, and he performs really well with tools like horror and suspense.

Author Stephen King

He’s said that his ideas are situational; the what-ifs inspire the story. “What if . . . a family is trapped in a haunted hotel?” Everything stems from that. So his characters are like pawns in a chess game, and we wait to find out who wins, who is sacrificed, and who makes a narrow escape. One of the reasons King’s stories are so well-received is because his approach is both the key to successful suspense and the essence of storytelling: the question “what happens next?”

If there’s any reason The Shining shouldn’t be on the list, it’s because horror isn’t for everyone. I might agree, if it wasn’t an amazing novel. The Shining handles fear in a way that is important to experience—fear of people who we think love us; fear of people who are under something else’s control; fear of large and imposing forces, and conquering that fear not through blindness or ignorance, but through courage and accepting fear.

Because The Shining handles fear better than any other book I’ve ever read.

It is important to mention that the abusive father character is spending most of his time trying to write a novel, and meanwhile Stephen King has suffered from alcohol abuse. So King isn’t approaching these characters by glorifying a real social problem. In fact, he’s pouring out his soul. That might be the one common denominator between all great works of literature. Food for thought.

See you next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

The Canterbury Tales

Good morning, class.

In college, back when I was a student (just like you!), I took a class called Chaucer and Medieval Literature—over half of our class time was dedicated to The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer only completed 22 of the “tales,” which is about one-fifth of the full-length compilation he planned to write. That class was hard enough as it was, so I can’t imagine it multiplied by five.

But I liked studying The Canterbury Tales (sometimes more than reading it). It’s intricate, boundary-breaking, and foundational for just about every major piece of literature after it. It’s actually comparable to the Bible—for all it’s culturally-insensitive flaws, it is one of the building blocks of modern literature.

Just make sure someone’s there to help you understand it, like a professor. A real professor. Not a blogger. And please, just avoid the Middle English if you know what’s good for you.

The Canterbury Tales is about a lot of stuff, but it’s mostly about telling stories. A group of pilgrims are journeying to Canterbury, and they tell each other stories to pass the time—whoever tells the best story wins the competition. It’s a little mundane, but the stories they tell are diverse and multifaceted. Many of the tales are crude, especially those that use rape as a comic plot device. It’s always hard to look past. But a handful of these stories are, simply put, good. My favorites are the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the Pardoner’s Tale, and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale is one of the most feminist things medieval literature has to offer—it even holds up well today. After a knight’s rape of a girl, his punishment is to go out and find what women want most. A woman he meets claims to know the answer, but he must give her something in return—he must marry her. He agrees, but instantly regrets it because of her age and poverty. But she proves to him what she claims women want: sovereignty—power over men, which men consistently have over women. She gives him a choice between two options, neither of which he wants, so he tells her to decide, which she wanted all along.

The Pardoner’s Tale is probably my favorite—when I read it in high school, I recognized it instantly as the inspiration for “The Tale of the Three Brothers” in the Harry Potter franchise. Three men set out to conquer Death, and they come across a treasure that they won’t share. They each end up killing each other out of greed, and Death takes each of them without hesitation.

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is probably the most genuinely enjoyable of the tales—it’s about a talking rooster who has a dream about his eminent death by a fox. He is convinced that it’s a sign, but his hen convinces him otherwise. He goes about his business, and when a fox actually does catch him, the rooster outsmarts the fox and escapes, making for a happy ending.

The Canterbury Pilgrims, Blake, William (1757 – 1827, English)

There are a lot of good high school English reasons to read The Canterbury Tales. Historical context, frame story, character study, themes and symbols…I can already see the unit plan. It’s just a good piece of literature to study.

But I like to think there’s a good reason to read it, in the same way one would read any other book on the 50-books list. As luck would have it, my previous book provides the answer—Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The climax of Life of Pi involves the choice between two stories, and which one is “better.” That’s the crux of the competition in The Canterbury Tales—choosing the best story.

This isn’t the kind of story you read on a Saturday curled up in a comfy chair…it’s the kind of story that you study and slave over. But it proves that big, important literature is on the same level as your comfy-chair-book. The Canterbury Tales is a big, epic-scale piece of literature about the importance of stories. Stories guide us and nurture us, and they reach out to us across time and space to give us meaning. There are many novels that can help you see that, but Geoffrey Chaucer made it happen first.

Up next, I’m trying The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I’ve never read it before, so I’m walking into it blind. It’s been a while since I’ve done that with a book, so I’m definitely excited!

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Types of Stories

Hello again, class.

I recently read an article claiming that all stories are the same. Details differ, but the “skeletons” are all based on the same structure. The monsters in a story can take many shapes, like Grendel in Beowulf, the land owners in The Grapes of Wrath, and infidelity in Ulysses, but they’re all monsters. The quest is always about finding something—treasure, peace, home, the damsel in distress, etc. Characters have arcs, plots have acts, and Hollywood has McGuffins.

I see this as a challenge. There isn’t much in this world that’s so subtly threatening as categorizing things. Someone created each of those stories, and if you told them their story was exactly like everyone else’s, you might not get out of there alive. So before we chalk this up as fact, let’s analyze it a bit.

Frankenstein's Monster, a classic example of the monster archetype.

Frankenstein’s Monster, a classic example of the monster archetype.

If all stories are the same, then all plots and characters are based on already-established archetypes. When we talk about a monster or a villain, certain requirements of the archetype come to mind, and an author can adhere to, deny, or parody those requirements with their own creation. The overcoming-the-monster plot is an archetype as well, and certain requirements of that plot are already in place. When we see a hero fighting a monster, we understand the labels of “hero” and “monster” from other stories, and we understand the trajectory of the story from similar stories.

The claim that all stories are the same—like most generalizations—is trapped in labels…and labels are always evolving. The heroes and monsters of Ancient Greece and the Renaissance may not be the same as monsters of today, but we can “translate” the monsters of the past into monsters that we recognize. A character who is imposing, mean-spirited, and violent is a monster, whether it’s a giant one-eyed Cyclops or an angry business-owner. A monster can even be a friendly teenage boy or a devoted parent, as long as the archetype is still upheld—“translated” accurately.

These archetypes are great at doing one of two things: A) helping readers and viewers “figure out” the story by making it familiar, or B) binding the plot and characters unnecessarily, and forcing it to pull its punches rather than tell a good story.

I read another article that clarifies that there are seven types of stories—seven plot archetypes that all stories adhere to. See the article here for a more in-depth look.

  1. bookshelf-illustrationOvercoming the Monster (that’s, like, the millionth time I’ve mentioned this one—take the hint, it will be on the test)
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedies
  6. Tragedies
  7. Rebirth

Even the stories that refute or deny these basic plots are still reflections of them (each one “translated” from the original blueprint). It seems that all stories spring from somewhere else.

The first article I mentioned argues that reducing stories to a formula is like “unweaving the rainbow.” To limit all stories by these boundaries removes the magic of storytelling. I’m not sure I agree though…there is something remarkable about the fact that all stories are connected, as if it’s all one big story. Writers are building on the stories of the past toward stories of the future, and everyone adds a piece.

To quote Walt Whitman, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” And to quote Robin Williams, “What will your verse be?”

types-of-stories-book-landscapeA professor once told me that there are two ways to start a story—either a stranger comes to town, or someone decides to leave. Whatever happens from there changes everything. Somehow, that simple prompt is both challenging and comforting.

Your homework: I want to see if you have a story that won’t fit in the basic plots listed above. Prove these high brow literature professors wrong (not me, of course—all the other snooty ones). Leave it in the comment section. Don’t feel bad if you can’t find one, though. Yes, those are fighting words.

You can look forward to my post on A Christmas Carol next Wednesday. Thanks for coming to class!

Prof. Jeffrey